Review: Wallpaper In Ireland 1700-1900

Review:"Wallpaper In Ireland 1700-1900" by David Skinner, Churchill House Press, 2014


A very large number of houses are always changing their tenants — houses of the middling and cheaper classes more particularly — and a ‘fresh paper’ is the usual complement of a new tenant.                       (The Irish Builder magazine, 1868)

This account of the customary use of wallpaper in central Dublin reminded me of my parents’ upbringing in Pittsfield, a small industrial city in western Massachusetts. Elaine McConkey and Richard Kelly grew up during the 1930s in large households surrounded by cheap wallpaper. Renting was a way of life. I also grew up in rented quarters surrounded by cheap wallpaper, the second of their ten children. I began Skinner’s book, then, well-disposed to hear his assessment of the Irish contribution to wallpaper history. 

The photos reveal that Skinner's predecessors, Mrs. Leask and John O’Connell, had long foraged the countryside securing remnants of Irish-stamped wallpaper (as in England, Irish wallpaper was taxed by the Crown). Many of the samples shown in the book have since found a home at Fota House (Cork) in the Irish Heritage Trust Collection of Historic Wallpaper

The provenance of the wallpapers along with Skinner’s meticulous research give the book the stamp of authority. English and French wallpapers sold and installed in Ireland are no less scrutinized. The samples come from all strata of society. The firsthand evidence is often thrilling. It’s one thing to know that the Cowtan company of London furnished Irish estates, and another thing to have found, as Skinner did, penciled inscriptions from Cowtan’s workers on the very walls of Carton and Coollattin.

On the evidence of this book important paperstaining shops in the United Kingdom were not limited to a few English cities but were also common in Ireland, at least leading up to the high-water mark of the mid-nineteenth century. While Skinner's book does not exactly upend the conventional portrait of a dominant English wallpaper culture within the UK, it does confront those assumptions with new evidence. He shows the character of wallpaper production in Ireland and how this production affected that of other countries. 

Skinner challenges assumptions that English or Irish wallpaper is easily sorted into stereotypes. The range of finish was vast. Of course, each nation had areas of specialization, and some genres were quite distinctive. But these exemplars, so visually arresting and therefore so appealing to one’s preferences, can have a tendency to overshadow the essential sameness of wallpaper in context, when each pattern for sale was simply one choice among many. Within these generalities, there were recognizable facts and trends. For example, Skinner all but proves that the “middling and cheaper classes” were the primary consumers of wallpaper in Ireland in the nineteenth century. This seems to have been true for the North American market as well. 

If there was an Irish style, it seems to have been equal parts cheap, harmonious, and staid, judging from these photos. That said, there was also a preference for a significant number of down-market papers of almost punishing chromatic vivacity that pose a challenge to our twenty-first century sensibilities. Did people really like these outrageous colors and designs? Apparently, they did. An example of a 'fancy flowered, rainbowed' paper from France sold by James Boswell in the 1830s is shown below (Figure 189).

At the other end of the scale the book shows agreeably-aged wallpapers draping many a stately home. These now-echoing castles, country homes, and great halls may be stately but they are nevertheless domiciles thus validating their inclusion here. 

Historical wallpapers have been increasingly integrated into museum collections and thereby saved for posterity, a generally happy result. But, we must remember that this acceptance is no substitute for what has been lost in the separation from the home, namely that a particular pattern was chosen by a particular person for a particular room. The acquisition of wallpapers by museums therefore presents risks as well as rewards: a risk that these artifacts might be presented and appreciated as what they were never intended to be: Art. It is encouraging to see that this risk was avoided in the present volume. The wallpapers come from a wide variety of collections, but they are consistently presented in context as fresh complements to the arrival of new tenants or as enhancements for a beloved residence. 

Chapter Six will probably appeal the most to students of North American history. Here we learn how native producers emerged and sustained themselves within a market defined by foreign rivals; how various grades of wallpaper were marketed; and who bought them. The marketing story is not simply national. Many of the economic variables (tariffs, taxes, competition, and contraband) were international in scope, and their successful negotiation mattered absolutely: getting on the wrong side of even one or two of them could make or break a small producer.  

Many of the nuances of Irish history (for example, that the aristocratic lifestyle all but vanished in Dublin after the Act of Union in 1800) are sure to slip by American readers like me. Yet this in no way lessens Skinner's achievement. He paints a lively picture against a shifting backdrop as the village and family paperstainers of the eighteenth century gave way to the small-to-middling factories of the nineteenth. Skinner demonstrates that Irish wallpaper was dominant in the home market and available for only a few pence per roll by the mid-1830s. Yet, this was a qualified success.

None of the Irish shops grew to the size of English behemoths such as Heywood, Higginbotham, and Smith. The long-delayed utilization of continuous paper and newly-invented machinery for printing combined to spark proliferation world-wide by around 1850. Ireland certainly saw proliferation, but it was hands-on and small scale. Indeed, Irish shops can hardly be described as mechanized since block-printing was almost exclusively employed throughout the nineteenth century. The industry petered out completely by 1880. 

Why did the mechanization of paper-hangings factories skip over Ireland? Skinner makes no claims that his book is a sociological text, but he does point out on page 164 that Ireland lost four million people to famine and emigration between 1841 and 1900, becoming thereby the only European nation to lose population in those years. These losses occurred at the very time that mechanization of the wallpaper industry was taking hold elsewhere. 

Many wallpaper historians have implied that the rise of machine-printing was swift and that it soon replaced block-printing. Skinner’s book throws some light on these assumptions. He notes that in 1845 Moses Staunton was dissatisfied with the new English-made machine-prints: “…he found the colours lasted but a few days from being put on the walls… ”. This technological speed bump was acknowledged in contemporary accounts (a discussion of the shortcomings of machine-prints was published in the Journal of Design and Manufactures of 1851). Yet, shortcomings like thin, watery inks and botched registration have not been given their due in secondary sources until now. This new information rounds out our picture of late-nineteenth century shops and helps explain why block-printing continued in English, French, Canadian, and American shops long after machinery had arrived.

Skinner describes the country house Ballinterry as “solid, rambling, and unpretentious”. That might be said as well about Skinner’s text. I appreciated this foundation as I struggled to keep up with his brisk gallop through two centuries of decorative history. The photography is exceptional. Figure 112 (showing borders from 1810) practically explodes off the page. 

The wooly flock, shiny metallics, pin-dots, and irregularities of the blockprints show the tactile qualities of early wallpaper. The simple but effective designs of the cheap self-grounded papers hint at why they were so popular. Self-grounded wallpapers (colored in the pulp) were very popular in the nineteenth century with yellow, pink, and brown being typical colors. 

The inclusion of many gorgeous photos of oddball print-room types and art-historical darlings such as the Chinese scenics and the Cupid & Psyché series (from Dufour) threaten to tip the book into coffee-table territory. Yet Skinner includes many previously unpublished details about Hamilton’s Etruscan prints in the print-room section. He also explains how Tischbein adapted them for the wall. We learn why Hamilton and Tischbein were inspired, who carried this trade out, and how tastemakers and householders realized the possibilities. The 237 color photos are accompanied by context which do them justice. Captions and photos are precisely placed, a virtue not always found in wallpaper books. 

 Skinner dutifully reports on the few French arabesques that are known to have been used in Ireland (many more were advertised) and tidies up some lingering anomalies about the late-eighteenth century Sherringham and Eckhardt factories, both located in the London area. His chapter on Edward Duras, who successfully transplanted his paperstaining business from Dublin to Bordeaux, France, is a revelation.

Skinner sorts out many other corners of wallpaper history. For example, it’s well-known that a group of Irish paperstainers emigrated to Liverpool in the early nineteenth century and thrived for the next fifty years. He explains their rise and fall. Much fresh information is provided about James Boswell’s company. Boswell’s designs, his upright business methods (not emulated by all of his competitors) and his impact on the paperstaining culture are on display, which is quite an accomplishment considering that up until now Boswell’s company had been little more than a footnote in wallpaper history. Skinner notes that over a hundred Boswell designs have been deposited in the Office of the Registrar of Designs in Kew, forming what is arguably the most comprehensive body of work for any Irish paperstainer. Nothing like this exists in the United States. 

Skinner puts Morris-type papers in context, describing their designs as “organic” and “neo-vernacular”. He shows how Irish manufacturers juggled processes, styles, and regulations to see off competitors, poach patterns, and capture markets.

An art nouveau design on self-grounded paper (Figure 212) proves that no design, however avant-garde, was beyond exploitation. It is most likely a cheap English machine-print. By the time this pattern was printed about 1890 the Irish industry had collapsed.

To take on 200 years of decorative history, albeit that of a single product in a single country, is a daunting task. Skinner has succeeded by imaginatively reconstructing and communicating the outlooks of those who were intimately associated with the product — the paperstainers, retailers, paperhangers, and consumers. He has contributed a sound history of the rise and fall of the Irish paper-hangings industry, fulfilling one of his stated goals. But, more important, his book will certainly influence wallpaper studies because of its firm grasp on the historical context within which these wallpaper artifacts must be understood. “Wallpaper In Ireland” teaches much about the Irish people and their craft traditions. But it also shows that when it comes to wallpaper, no country is an island.

How To Buy "Backstory"